The New York Times and the Washington Post both had detailed obituaries on Jefferson Thomas, the Little Rock Nine member who died Sunday. (I had put his age at 68, based on the birthdate listed in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History as Sept. 1, 1942, but the Washington Post says his birthddate was Sept. 19, 1942.) Anecdotes from his life are still stirring. For example, from the Post:
He said his role in the integration of Central High "destroyed the family base," noting that his father was fired from a sales job with International Harvester because of the controversy. The elder Thomas scraped by as a handyman and, the day after his son's graduation, moved to the family out of the state.
Jefferson Thomas later recalled his family's journey to California as a scene of misery from the pages of John Steinbeck's Depression-era novel "The Grapes of Wrath" — "everything on top of the car and you move off."
NOTE: The National Park Service's Central High Historic Site has on permanent exhibit portions of an interview with Thomas in an oral history project with UALR. From Wednesday, Sept. 8 through Sun., Sept. 12, the center will show the full one-hour interview.
I also received a note this morning from Sybil Hampton, who was among the second group of black students who entered Central in 1959, after the schools were closed for year. She'd later become president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.
Jefferson Thomas was always in the background by choice, but such a caring, thoughtful, class act! The only consolation I can take at this time is that being the first of the Little Rock Nine to die provides an opportunity for the world to learn about this good and gentle man!
Those of us who attended LRCH when it reopened in 1959 school had a chance to be together in a wonderful way that few can know or understand. We were not celebrities but just 5 young students on a difficult journey buoyed by our faith, families, hope, dreams and belief in the promises of democracy.